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The branded life

When a consumerist society funds technology, the resulting developments should be expected to further consumerism and the mind-sets, the assumptions, that enable it. Thus much technology allows us to expedite our consumption, a process labeled convenience. One would also assume it would be directed toward making us view more advertising, as advertising is the primary vehicle for reproducing the consumerist ideology. But much of the latest home entertainment technology seems driven by the power it gives consumers to circumvent ads. This would seem to foil my little argument, however the technological screening of overt ads has had the effect of pushing ads deeper into the fabric of our entertainment and our society, thus if anything, enhancing their ideological potency (if not their selling power of a specific product).

This development is chronicled in yesterday's New York Times story "When the Ad Turns Into the Story Line." Because the independent ads are tuned out, advertisers have partnered with television production companies to integrate the ads directly into the narratives of the programs. Whenever this sort of change is reported -- and it happens often; it's a business-section evergreen -- advertisers are usually depicted as "scrambling" to keep up with consumers, struggling to "adapt" to those ever more crafty consumers, who are remorseless and ever resourceful in their drive to thwart Madison Avenue. It's a flattering enough rendering of the situation for consumers, making it seem as though they have all the power. But it flatters advertisers too and plays into their industry's rationalizations that they somehow serve the public or are consigned to chasing after them in our "consumer-driven society." And it grants a preposterous air of inevitability to the infiltration of ads deeper into all forms of social space. This absurd statement illustrates what I mean: "Network, advertising, and production executives say that this season, more and more brands will venture outside the confines of 30-second ads. They may have no choice: As technology and clutter blunt the effectiveness and reach of commercial spots that have underpinned the business...the various players are scrambling to adapt." They have no choice? Consumers, in fact, have no choice but to have their entertainment come packaged with brands. Advertisers are choosing to seize upon technological innovations as an excuse to penetrate further and insinuate marketing messages into areas that individuals have become increasingly desperate to protect from such exploitation.

But TV execs and advertisers have one specific message for you if you don't happen to like this infiltration: tough shit. "If people get insulted they can go watch PBS or go rent an independent movie. Seriously, this is the real world," says one advertiser, again drawing on the "ads are inevitable/we have no choice" ruse. The "real world" is one in which everything must be commercialized in order to be legitimate, in order to survive. The real world is branded with the product names that this flunkey pimps to the world. The world of PBS and independent movies is not "real" -- insignificant and underfunded, reduced to mere alibis for consumerist expansion, they are bogus alternatives that allow the commerical hegemony to present itself as a free choice made by individuals. If you don't like that hegemony, not only are you being naive and unrealistic, you are also failing to avail yourself of your freedom of choice, and are thus irrelevant and anti-democratic. Never mind that the either-ors of how you entertain yourself personally has nothing to do with a desire to see commercialism's infestation restrained by some counterveiling force.

With the extension of advertising into the fabric of narrative, advertisers hope we'll just accept the presence of brands in entertainment as a given, as an entirely natural part of any given universe -- "The fact is brands are part of our lives...so why not showcase them?" Again, don't blame advertisers, they are just trying to see that the existing reality is reflected. The underlying result of these product-placements is not merely to expose us to more ads but to wear down our collective resistance to the idea that there is a difference between marketing and entertainment. Advertisers must hope that eventually we will see them as the exact same thing, part and parcel of one another. It's already happening in consumer magaiznes, which are harder and harder to distinguish from catalogs.

It may seem like advertisers merely want to convince you to buy whatever specific product they're implanting in these shows, but in fact it's more insidious than that. They are hoping that you'll begin to sturcture the episodes of your life around brands, just as the TV shows are, to see them as major life events, like the narrative hooks of typical episodes past wherein the relationships of the characters are transformed in some specific way. The presence of brands commercializes those rituals, and leads us to expect them to be comercialized to be "real," or it may make our relationship to brands equivalent to our relationship with others, something that develops our trust and evolves through various crisis moments that these shows can depict in placing products. Without brands our lives become increasingly unreal, unverified, unauthorized, invisible to others, who have become more and more accustomed to gauging brand relationships in attempting to integrate others into their lives. So we must adopt the appropriate brands or else risk disappearing.

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